The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge - T.J. English

Mild spoilers, i.e, if you look any of this up on Wikipedia, or are better informed than I was, it’s spoiler-free.


The Savage City

by T.J. English


On August 28, 1963, George Whitmore sat entranced by the television, spellbound by an event that he believed would change history. On that momentous day, Martin Luther King, Jr. led his peaceful march on Washington that culminated in one of the most famous speeches in history. Unfortunately, for George Whitmore, the dream of equality would be disrupted by a nightmare of racial injustice that beggars belief. At precisely the same time as Whitmore listened to King expound his dream of equality, two wealthy white girls on the Upper East Side of Manhattan were being brutally murdered. In the subsequent media outcry, the corrupt New York City police chose an easy scapegoat: a compliant, confused, and credulous African-American. After a series of planted evidence and utterly unethical interrogation tactics, George Whitmore was charged for the so-called “Career Girls Murder” as well as the nearby murder of a young nurse and the attempted assault of another woman. At no point during his grueling series of interrogations did Whitmore indicate any familiarity with any of the crime scenes or victims, nor did he match the initial description given by the living victim. The police coached him on his lines, convincing him that only by confessing would he be released. Through the machinations of the police, judges, and attorneys who maliciously twisted, hid, and manufactured evidence, George Whitmore was convicted and sent to Death Row. Even when the real perpetrators were found and Whitmore was alibied--people remembered him watching the television, utterly absorbed by King's speech--and therefore known to be innocent of one after another of his convictions, judge after judge disallowed relevant information into court, and jury after jury reconvicted.


The Savage City tells George Whitmore’s story, but interweaves it with two others: William R. Phillips, a corrupt policeman, and Dhoruba bin Wahad, a man who would become a critical player in the Black Pather Party. These three stories have had tremendous influence on our history in everything from mirandizing of suspects to the changes in the face of the civil rights movement. I am chastened to say that even though I grew up in the U.S, it is a story that I have never heard. Whilst I remember, as a child, hearing whispers about the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army, and race riots, I never really heard the reason for them, the injustices, the series of betrayals of a system that made recourse to violence begin to feel as the only option. I am horrified that this heartbreaking story wasn’t (or still isn’t?) really told in our schools; during my education across four different states, we focused only on Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks and other “peaceful” role models. Schools were silent about leaders like Malcom X and bin Wahad and Huey Newton, leaving the only mention of them to the sensationalist and fearful media. The story of Whitmore was ignored by my various schools--after all, it didn’t speak well of authority figures.


One of the most galling aspects of it all, to my mind, was that the government servants who were proved to have committed various forms of fraud that lost a man the best years of his life got off scot-free. And in one sense, Whitmore was lucky: he was so patently innocent that he was eventually cleared. In my opinion, every single case those police officers closed, those attorneys prosecuted, those judges administered should have been reopened for other miscarriages of justice, and each of them should have been prosecuted within the full extent of the law. Instead, most of the ones I looked up were untouched by events. Several are still alive, happily retired in Florida. I don’t believe in Hell, but if I did, I’d imagine there’s a special place for those who manufactured and hid evidence to knowingly and intentionally convict a black man that they know is utterly innocent, at least partially because of his race. How is that not a hate crime? Since he got the death “penalty,” (what a term), how is it not attempted murder?


Slightly off-topic, but it seems to me that the Knapp Commission et al, civil rights, and the institution of Miranda, etc, provide a far better explanation for decreased violence than the Freakonomics abortion thing.

(show spoiler)


T.J. English paints a portrait of a city that I had never before encountered, one of racism and police corruption so profound and endemic that the resulting despair led, almost inevitably, to violence. Although English’s sympathies are clear, he includes a multitude primary sources such as interviews, excerpts from memoirs, and quotes from evidence in court, and from my subsequent cursory research, I think his presentation tries hard to be fair. If I have a few quibbles about the book, I think it is in the phrasing. English tends to use the term for African-Americans that was in use during the time, meaning that he spends a good portion of the book using the term “Negro” even though the book itself details how the word came to be seen as extremely offensive. One might argue that he was trying to use the correct parlance of the time, but he calls Dhoruba bin Wahad by his preferred name throughout, even before he chose the name. It was, however, a thought-provoking usage; having grown up after the time that it fell out of favour, I find the term offensive instinctively. In The Savage City, I learned why.


Overall, T.J. English expertly weaves together the three men’s lives into a compelling, heartbreaking story. It is a story that lies almost forgotten, yet is crucial to twentieth century American history. One last thing: if you think our savage cities have been tamed, think again.